Inventing Secularism: The Radical Life of George Jacob Holyoake


Jailed for atheism and disowned by his family, George Jacob Holyoake came out of an English prison at the age of 25 determined to bring an end to religion’s control over daily life. This first modern biography of the founder of Secularism describes a transformative figure whose controversial and conflict-filled life helped shape the modern world. Ever on the front lines of social reform, Holyoake was hailed for having won “the freedoms we take for granted today.” With Secularism now under siege, George Holyoake’s vision of a “virtuous society” rings today with renewed clarity.

The Paris Game: Charles de Gaulle, the Liberation of Paris, and the Gamble That Won France


Amid the ravages of a world war, three men — a general, a president, and a prime minister — are locked in a rivalry that threatens their partnership and puts the world’s most celebrated city at risk of destruction before it can be liberated. This is the setting of The Paris Game, a dramatic recounting of how an obscure French general under sentence of death by his government launches on the most enormous gamble of his life: to fight on alone after his country’s capitulation to Nazi Germany. In a game of intrigue and double-dealing, Charles de Gaulle must struggle to retain the loyalty of Winston Churchill against the unforgiving opposition of Franklin Roosevelt and the traitorous manoeuvring of a collaborationist Vichy France. How he succeeds in restoring the honour of France and securing its place as a world power is the stuff of raw history, both stirring and engrossing.

Joey Smallwood: Schemer and Dreamer


Known as the “only living Father of Confederation” in his lifetime, Joey Smallwood was an entertaining, crafty, and controversial politician in Canada for decades.Born in Gambo, Newfoundland, Joseph (“Joey”) Smallwood (1900–1991) spent his life championing the worth and potential of his native province. Although he was a successful journalist and radio personality, Smallwood is best known for his role in bringing Newfoundland into Confederation with Canada in 1949, believing that such an action would secure an average standard of living for Newfoundlanders. He was rightfully dubbed the “only living Father of Confederation” in his lifetime and was premier of the province for twenty-three years.
In Joey Smallwood: Schemer and Dreamer, Ray Argyle reexamines the life of this incredible figure in light of Newfoundland’s progress in recent years.

Scott Joplin and the Age of Ragtime


At the turn of the twentieth century, Scott Joplin struggled on the margins of society to play a pivotal role in the creation of ragtime music. His brief life and tragic death encompassed a tumultuous time of changes in modern music, culture, and technology. This biography follows Joplin’s life from the brothels and bars of St. Louis to the music mills of Tin Pan Alley as he introduced a syncopated, lively style to classical piano.

The Boy in the Picture


Edward Mallandaine was there! To prove it he thrust himself into the historic photograph of the “Last Spike” being driven to mark the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Surrounded by the railway dignitaries of the time, his young face peers out amid their frosty beards. Edward had just turned eighteen when he left his home in Victoria, British Columbia, to join the Canadian militia to fight Louis Riel in the North-West Rebellion of 1885. Hired to ride dispatches over the unfinished stretch of railway in British Columbia, he survives the lawlessness of remote towns and railway camps, rubs shoulders with Chinese labourers struggling to blast a right-of-way through the towering peaks of Eagle Pass, and makes a freezing midnight ride by railway flatcar to reach the outpost of Craigellachie just in time.

Turning Points: The Campaigns That Changed Canada

GET THE BOOK (E-edition)

The dramatic political events of 2011 — the election of a Conservative majority government after seven years of minority rule — sent Canadian politics hurtling in a new and unpredictable direction. The drama of one of the most exciting elections in Canadian history is captured in this revised and updated edition of Turning Points: the Campaigns That Changed Canada. The new edition retains the original chapters that dissect the pivotal campaigns that have affected Canadians since Confederation, with a new first chapter on the May 2 federal election.

Kennedy After Dallas; A Virtual History

GET THE BOOK (E-edition)

What if John F. Kennedy had survived Dallas on November 22, 1963? Fifty years after the assassination of the President, this book employs the technique of “virtual history” to examine the dramatically different course of events that would have followed if JFK had escaped death on that fateful day.

An Act of Injustice


A bride, a groom, and a lover. One will die, another will hang, and the survivor will begin an obsessive 20-year odyssey to discover the truth. Three people caught up in the harsh class differences and religious and racial prejudices of Victorian Canada, where a vast new territory—the “Queen’s Bush”—is being opened to settlement in Ontario’s Georgian Bay country. Inspired by the true lives of Rosannah Leppard and Cook Teets, An Act of Injustice follows disgruntled newspaperman Leonard Babington in a combination courtroom drama, murder mystery, and meditation on the moral malaise of Victorian Canada. His obsession plunges him into the labyrinth world of Ottawa power politics, the salons of a smug “Toronto the Good,” and the licentiousness of the city’s Insane Asylum. With literary distinction and storytelling mastery, this historical novel brings the urgency of today’s headlines to the struggle for romance, justice, and equality in a young, 20th century Canada.

The Time of My Life


In The Time of My Life, Ray Argyle makes a series of trips around Canada in a search to rediscover his roots and take the measure of a changing country. Handicapped only by a wonky knee that “makes it hard to chase streetcars or fend off pit bulls,” Argyle leads his daughters Sharon, Brenda, and Roanne on explorations into a life lived on the edge. The result is a memoir that is funny, poignant, and reflective, spanning Canada’s nation-building years of the twentieth century to the present. He writes of the literature, personalities, and political events he’s encountered and speculates on a future where unrestrained manipulation of public opinion will deepen the chasm between a fearful rich and an anguished poor.


INVENTING SECULARISM: The Radical Life of George Jacob Holyoake

McFarland & Co. (USA),  2021

Go to YouTube to see the online launch of Inventing Secularism, organized by the National Secular Society and Conway Hall, London.

EXTRA: “It’s Not Too Late to Fulfill George Holyoake’s Secularist Vision.” Essay by Ray Argyle for National Secular Society. Read it Here.

Jailed for atheism, disowned by his family, George Jacob Holyoake came out of an English prison at the age of 25 determined to bring an end to religion’s control over daily life. In this first modern biography of the founder of Secularism – Holyoake invented the term in 1851 and set the principles that guide it to this day – Ray Argyle reveals the largely untold story of a transformative figure whose controversial and conflict-filled life helped shape the modern world. Holyoake was in the forefront of every movement for social reform and was hailed on his death in 1906 for having won “the freedoms we take for granted today.” With Secularism under siege from religious forces ranging from Christian Evangelism to Islamic Fundamentalism, George Holyoake’s vision of a “virtuous society” rings today with renewed clarity,

                Final Cover Continue reading

Coronavirus and the end of history

We are “sheltering in place” – staying home, working on my next book, keeping in touch by phone and email — and wondering what’s coming next. We awoke to bad news: a retirement home in one of our favorite cottage country towns, Bobcaygeon, Ontario, reporting nine deaths of elderly patients. Amid concern about a shortage of ventilator units, a  sober reminder from the doctor attending them: For even those who survive on a ventilator, “their quality of life will be abysmal.” Then word that the infection rate for Covid-19 in Canada and the U.S. might be ten times what’s been reported, due to lack of testing. President Trump, in another irrelevant diatribe, says he expects the U.S. to be out of danger by June 1. This after having said he thought the country would reopen by Easter.

So goes our ”annus horribilis,” this horrible year of 2020 that started with the great brush fires in Australia and the shooting down of the Ukrainian Airlines plane in Iran. If we thought things would get better we were soon dissuaded of that illusion. To those who considered Covid-19 just another flu-like virus, and that everyone was overreacting, even the skeptics should realize by this week — said to be a critical one for North America – that the danger is very real and very present.

It is hard to foretell the future. One who tried – and failed – was Dr. Francis Fukuyama, a U.S. State Department planner who in 1992 published The End of History. He argued that liberal democracy would sweep the world in the wake of the collapse of Communism. “A true global culture has emerged, centering around technologically driven economic growth.”  We faced nothing but progress, with all things getting better for all – a flatline for history; an era of abundance, peace, security.

We know things haven’t worked out quite that way. History has a way of tricking us – like the Gulf War, 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The 2008 financial crash.


Whatever happens now, our own version of an end of history will be written over the next year or two. Those who expect the economy to come “roaring back” after the virus is quelled are unlikely to see their optimism fulfilled. Despite the government aid that’s been promised, the purchasing power of workers and consumers – and their ability to borrow – is likely to be as abysmal as the outlook for patients on ventilators by the time we’re finished with this.

What about social norms? We cannot go through the trauma of this global pandemic without it affecting us permanently, in ways we cannot yet imagine. Will our travails draw us together, making us a more compassionate society?

Will our reliance on government turn into full-out Socialism? The government guaranteeing employment and income for all? Do we really need monumental department stores now that we can fill almost all our needs online? Will we continue to demand the luxury and ostentation of high end shops and cafes? Book tickets for ocean cruises? Learn again how to greet, to hug, and to embrace with a kiss? Will there be any longer a need for huge office towers now that people have learned to work from home?

Will the pandemic pave the way for real action on climate change? Or make it unnecessary? Already, air pollution is down by half over the industrialized regions of the world.

In all of this, books will surely retain their importance. Online sales are up, way up, a hopeful sign that people are returning to their old reading habits. We writers hope they’ll keep it up.

One who could foretell the future was Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian communications theorist (“the medium is the message.”) After I got to know him in the 1980s, I liked to play a video clip for clients of him on why people come to the office. “It’s because of the files,” he said. “They’re all in the office, that’s why people jam the roads to get to work. But they don’t need to – it could all be accessible on broadband at home.” Those prophetic words were spoken a full decade before we’d heard of the internet.

We need a Marshall McLuhan now to tell us where we’re likely to go in these troubling times.

Continue reading “Coronavirus and the end of history”

Two Socialists Vie for the White House – a Century Apart

The prospect of a self-declared Socialist winning the White House — an idea always considered a non-starter– has emerged as a practical possibility in the wake of the first place finish by Sen. Bernie Sanders in the New Hampshire primary. The latest Quinnipiac poll has him leading nationally with 25 % support to 17% for Joe Biden.

Not since the 1920 U.S. presidential election, held under circumstances surprisingly similar to those prevailing 100 years later, has a viable Socialist candidate challenged Democratic and Republican occupancy of the country’s highest office.


Two years after the end of the First World War and three years after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, a strong America First sentiment ran through the American electorate. It found expression in opposition to the U.S. joining the League of Nations, and exploited fear of domestic violence from Communists and anarchists.

Today, President Trump questions American participation in NATO and other international bodies. He is building a wall intended to prevent illegal migration across the U.S.-Mexico border, has banned entry of people from mostly Muslim countries, and has fanned fears of Islamic inspired terrorism.

In 1920, the Republican party ran Sen. Warren G. Harding in a campaign promising a “return to normalcy” after the sacrifices and shortages of the war. That theme has found an echo in Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again, and his boast that he has led a great American comeback.

In 1920, a tired and ill Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, had served two terms and hoped for a third, but Democratic Party leaders, recognizing that several strokes had rendered him incapable of governing, sought a fresh face,

In 1920, it took 44 ballots to nominate Ohio Governor James M. Cox, a newspaper owner. His vice presidential running mate was Franklin D. Roosevelt, Secretary of the Navy. This year, the first ballot votes of delegates to the Democratic Party convention will be split among several candidates, based on their performance in the primaries.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, a well-established Socialist party drew significant strength from a coalition of trade unionists, populist farmers, immigrants, and remnants of the progressive movement that had made Theodore Roosevelt a powerful influence even after his failure as a third party candidate running against Republican President Taft and Democratic challenger Wilson in 1912.

By 1920, the Socialist party had elected two members to the House of Representatives along with dozens of state legislators and more than one hundred mayors in cities across the country.

Today, the Democratic Party finds itself energized by the victories of left-leaning female candidates in the off-year elections of 2018. They have helped spark the rise of the party’s progressive wing that is credited with enabling the strong performance of Bernie Sanders.

An anti-Communist hysteria spread through the U.S. in the years immediately after the First World War. Today, President Trump has branded Sen. Sanders a Communist. Trump can be expected to intensify this line of attack by digging into the Senator’s background for evidence of Communist sympathies.

The Socialist party was strongly pacifist and had opposed U.S. entry into the war. Its presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs, campaigned from prison, having been convicted of counselling opposition to the military draft, and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. He received 913.613 votes, or 3.4 per cent of the 26,700,000 votes cast.

Republican Warren Harding won in a landslide, carrying every state except eleven of the Democratic “Solid South.” It was the first time women voted in a presidential election. Harding ordered Debs’s release from prison in 1921.

The parallels between the elections of 1920 and 2020 are striking but both are unique to their times. They are reminders that confrontation and divisiveness do not spring up suddenly, but are rooted in what has gone before.

Ray Argyle is author of Turning Points: The Campaigns that Changed Canada.



CEOs do not always make the world a better place

There’s a television commercial depicting beautiful scenes of wildlife in Florida that includes the admonition, “Leave the world a better place than you found it.”

I’ve been reflecting on this while considering news reports of recent corporate disasters that have caused great loss of life and resulted in great cost to investors and consumers. I wonder how the CEOs involved in these misfortunes measure their actions against that standard.


There’s been so many cases of corporate irresponsibility it would take many blogs to recount them all. I’ve selected just six to illustrate what can happen when governments fail in their oversight of corporate behavior, and corporations and their leaders pursue profit at the expense of the public good and corporate reputation.

  • Pacific Gas & Electric, the California utility that failed to properly maintain its deteriorating transmission lines, has been responsible for 1,961 fires since 2014. On Nov. 8 2018, a live wire broke, falling onto tinder-dry bushes. The resulting fire wiped out the town of Paradise, killing 85 people. Shareholders were financial victims – the company’s market value dropped from US$25 billion to US$3 billion, and Pacific Gas declared bankruptcy. Does CEO Geisha Williams feel that she made the world a better place?
  • In the past fifteen years, 400,000 people have died in the United States from opioid overdoses. The count in Canada is also in the thousands. A major reason for this crisis has been bribing by drug companies of doctors – via direct payments and other benefits – to prescribe massively more doses than their patients needed. One CEO, John Kapoor of Insys Therapeutics, has been found guilty of racketeering and sentenced to 5 ½ years in prison. Did he make the world a better place?
  • The Canadian engineering firm SNC-Lavalin won contracts around the globe, sometimes by bribing authorities. The son of the ex-Libyan dictator enjoyed boats and planes furnished by the company.  On January 9, 2020 former company executive Sami Bebawi was sentenced to 8 ½ years in a Canadian jail on fraud and corruption charges. Did he make the world a better place?
  • In England, the architect, builders and fire engineers who refurbished the Grenfell Towers apartment building in London installed cladding that they knew would fail in the event of a fire. Seventy-two people died in the June, 2017 blaze that destroyed the structure. “Metal cladding always burns and falls off,” an architect emailed a fire engineer two years before the disaster. An official inquiry is now underway. Will it determine whether these executives have made the world a better place?
  • In Alberta, Canada, oil and gas companies have abandoned 3,406 inactive wells, leaving them to send toxic leaks onto farmers’ fields. The companies escaped responsibility by declaring bankruptcy. A government agency that was supposed to oversee an industry fund to cover the costs failed to do its job. An official inquiry has begun. Have the executives who ran the oil companies, or the bureaucrats who failed to properly regulate them, made the world a better place?
  • Perhaps most famously, the CEO of the Boeing Company, builders of the MAX-737, two of which crashed after it had failed to inform or train pilots in the use of its software, was fired but left the company with US$62 million in compensation. Does Dennis Muilenburg feel he has made the world a better place?

I am sorry to have to single out individuals by name, but one of the problems of corporate capitalism is that it allows its management class to avoid, ignore, or otherwise evade responsibility for actions they know – or should know – invite social or financial disaster.

Does this mean we should abandon corporate capitalism? No, but it does mean there’s an urgent need for tighter, more disciplined, more firmly enforced regulation. Unfortunately, governments in Europe and the United States have been moving in the opposite direction, throwing out or watering down regulatory regimes. The Trump administration is dedicated to eliminating or reducing pubic oversight, especially of the environment. Based on the examples above, we can expect further and more frequent assaults on the public interest, leading to even more horrendous consequences than we’ve seen in the past.


Religion – Iran’s shoot-down of Flight 752 cannot be divorced from theocratic rule

As Iran’s theocratic rulers attempt to defend their shooting down of Ukrainian International Airlines’ Flight 752, their use of religion to divide rather than to unite is again on display.

Iranian General Soleimani was working to build up Shiia Muslim influence, as well as to disrupt the U.S. role in the Middle East, when he was killed in a U.S. drone attack. But thr U.S. (and Israel) are not Iran’s only enemies. It’s important to remember the Iranians, followers of the Shiia branch of Islam, have been traditional enemies of the Sunni Muslims who are dominant in Iraq, Syria, and the Arabian peninsula.

If it was strategically useful to have forces under Soleimani’s  control take out Sunni communities he did so, at great cost in human lives.

The split in Muslim belief has never stopped Islam from uniting races from the Sahara to the Indonesian islands, just as the cleavage of the Reformation has not prevented a modern Catholic upsurge in Africa nor an uneasy peace between Protestants and Catholics in  northern Ireland. Fear that Brexit might upset that precarious relationship has been a sore point in UK negotiations with the European Union.

Is religion primarily a unifier or a divider? Two newish books shed light on that question.  In A Little History of Religion, Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, gives us a rapid tour de force of the world’s religions. He asserts religion is still “the biggest show on earth” but leaves it to us as to whether we wish to “buy a ticket.”

Richard Dawkins, the prominent atheist, is more resolute in Outgrowing God – A Beginner’s Guide. He’s written a book that could be aimed at either young adults or plains folks who grew up in church-going homes and who haven’t been into religious questioning.

I read these books simultaneously – a chapter of one, then one of another. It’s an interesting comparison, looking at two distinct points of view side by side, before either have delivered their ultimate message.

Dawkins’s thesis is straight forward and undeniable – that the universe and everything in it can be explained through scientific rationale. There was no intelligent designer, the Bible is largely a collection of myths, and we can be confident that mankind will continue to learn more and more about what makes the physical world tick.

Dawkins writes more about science than he does of religion. After disposing of the plethora of Gods that we have worshipped since the beginning, he lays out the basics of evolution and why Darwin was right, and moves on to ask whether we evolved to be religious, or to be nice.

Richard Holloway’s purpose in A Little History of Religion is to give us a smattering of understanding of all the world’s religions, and how they developed. He concedes the commonality of belief between most of them, from the flood to the concept of theism – a single God who rules the universe.

The most useful part of Holloway’s book may be his last chapter. He takes up the question of whether religion is nearing its end, and of how the secular state rose to take the place of the church in deciding issues of public interest – what laws are made, how schools are run, and who can hold public office.

The contrast between theistic states and secular ones is so strong as to make one wonder why it took us so long to abandon the interference of religion in the public sphere. Yet it took secular states many generations to overcome oppression of women and gays, just two examples of how so-called sacred books taught society to accept rule by men – at least certain kinds of men.

Holloway finds “the gap left by the fading of Christianity” is being filled by secular humanism – a system that holds that humanity has grown up “and should now take responsibility for itself.”

That was the argument made more than a century ago by the man  who invented the word secularism, and who went to jail for atheism rather than bow to the prejudices of 19th century England. George Holyoake set in motion a belief system that has brought freedom of conscience to people around the world. He deserves more recognition, which is why I’m writing his biography – A Radical Life. His life story shows that secularism can be the great unifier of humankind, replacing a  world where religion continues to act more to divide than it does to unite.

Jody’s ‘truth’ leads back to Ottawa

In holding her Vancouver-Granville seat in Monday’s federal election, Jody Wilson-Reybould proved you can, if your cause is just, “talk truth to power” and win.

“The people are always right” was a mantra of a former Canadian prime minister, John Turner. They were right when his Liberals lost the great trade battle of 1988, and they were right this week when they returned Justin Trudeau to power, albeit with a minority government.

Former Liberal justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould walks to Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Canadians voted as they did because they saw no viable alternative to Justin Trudeau, despite some serious policy failures and a slew of personal gaffes — dressing up in blackface, donning native costume in India, and firing Wilson-Reybould, the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, who insisted on doing her duty in prosecuting SNC-Lavalin, after it was caught afoul of anti-corruption laws.

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer lacked both the force of personality and the clarity of policy to challenge Trudeau. His spunkiest speech of the campaign came in defeat Monday night, promising the Conservatives would be ready, and would win, when the government falls. More than anything, it was Sheer’s strident attacks on the Liberal carbon tax that left his party, absent a meaningful climate change policy, blowing in the wind.

Jagmeet Singh struggled valiantly to hold an NDP bastion in the House of Commons but his ethnicity, — although few will admit this — and his honest criticism of Quebec’s secularism law, cost the party half of its seats. There’ll never be another Orange wave in Quebec. The Bloc Quebecois, back with more than 30 seats, remains the blunt tool of Quebec voters, a handy cudgel to beat more concessions from the federal government.

Now Justin Trudeau, short 14 seats of a majority but with by far the largest number of MPS — 156 at election night count compared to 122 Conservatives, has a clear field to push ahead with the Trans-Mountain pipeline, national pharmacare, increases to old age pensions, and over the next four years, raises in the “price on pollution,” — the carbon tax.

Trudeau need not rely on any one of the Opposition parties to win passage of his legislation, whether it be more deficit budgets or costly new programs that woo the left and infuriate the right, The Conservatives will support him on Trans-Mountain. The ND P, Greens and the Bloc will back his carbon tax strategy, and whatever plan he brings forward on pharmacare.

Proportional representation to dump the first past the post system? Not a chance. Trudeau won’t offer it, and the the three Opposition parties that would benefit from it have no leverage to bring it about.

Andrew Scheer made a brave speech in conceding defeat on election night. The party, if it is ever to seriously challenge the Liberals, has to break out of its narrow base of just one-third of the electorate. Without policies to win support from more than one in three voters, and as long as it remains blind to the urgency of climate change, Conservatives are doomed to languish on the Opposition benches for a long time to come.

Re-elected as an Independent in Vancouver Granville, Wilson-Reybould’s future depends on whether she takes up the leadership of the Green Party. She can have it for the asking. Elizabeth May, tired after four federal elections, has wanted Jody as her successor ever since Reybould-Wilson stepped down from cabinet. May would like to set aside the leadership burden, but before now there’s been no one qualified to take it on. Now there is.

As an Independent MP in Ottawa, Jody will have a lonely time. No colleagues, no research resources, no influence on the government. If she instead takes up the cause of the Greens, she’ll have three  other MPs supporting her and the knowledge that more than a million Canadians — double the previous high — voted Green in 2019. She would add to the environmental mission of the Greens the courage of a woman of proven talent, together a powerful combination for electoral success. 

Add to this mix the emerging climate change majority among Canadians under 45, and the clout of a mobilized Indigenous vote. Together, they’d represent a powerful new force in Canadian politics.. Bring on the election!

“It’s still the economy – stupid”

If you ask the truck driver whose long distance runs put him over the limit on hours he can safely work, or call center workers who fret about losing their jobs, if they know anything of economics, you’ll likely get the same answer: “Not a thing.”

Yet these are the very people, along with millions of others like them, who pay the price when the nostrums advocated by economists turn the economy on its head, and make things worse rather than better.

According to Binyamin Appelbaum, author of what is sure to be this fall’s economics blockbuster book, The Economists’ Hour, (Little, Brown and Company), the economists have become the new policy makers in government, not always with good results.

He traces the role of economists in the four decades between 1969 and 2008 “in curbing taxation and public spending, deregulating large sectors of the economy, and clearing the way for globalization.”

Any one of the folks I mentioned above is likely to suffer the consequences tomorrow of the economies these new policy-makers have created: one that’s either over-heated through easy money and inflation, in retrenchment due to cutbacks in government and consumer spending, or starved of public fiscal stimulus.

Nor have the economists solved unemployment, which is higher than official figures claim – six per cent for Canada and around four per cent for the United States.  These numbers count only people looking for work, and ignore those out of work who have given up looking for jobs. Appelbaum gives the extreme example of Galesburg, Ohio, where the official jobless figure was six per cent for men in 2016. He says an additional 41 per cent of the city’s working-age men were neither working nor actively seeking work: “Some were retired, some were happy, but many had simply given up”

America has shifted from such trades as shoe making to bond trading due to forces that are mainly “beyond the control of policy makers,” according to Appelbaum. He cites the reduced need for workers due to technological progress in making everything from cars to computers, and the more even spread of manufacturing jobs throughout the world.

In the face of this, the transformation of policy driven by economic theories, Appelbaum argues, “has hastened the evolution of the American economy, and funneled the benefits into the pockets of a plutocratic minority.”

If there was a starting point for the surrender of policy-making to economists, it was the appointment of an economist, Arthur F. Burns, as chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board in 1970. Two years later, George Schultz became the first economist to serve as Secretary of the Treasury (under President Nixon) and by the late 1970s the U.S. government was employing more than six thousand economists.

Appelbaum asserts that growth slowed in each successive decade during the following half century. “A few people became rich beyond the wildest dreams of Croesus, while the middle class now has reason to expect that their children will lead less prosperous lives.”

As the role of government grew after World War II, extending regulation over large swaths of economic activity, “the effect seemed almost magical,” Appelbaum declares. The disciples of British economist Maynard Keynes, who advocated government spending to stimulate the economy, held sway during the Kennedy and Johnson years.

Then came a dread period of “stagflation” when unemployment and inflation rose together in the 1970s. Enter the supply-side economists, who argued for cuts in both taxes and government spending,

Calling for faith in markets, conservative economists like Milton Friedman and George Stigler lent their expertise to a coalition of the powerful, “defending the status quo against threats real and imagined.” Some became intimates of the Mount Pelerin Society, a right-wing elitist group assembled by the Austrian-born libertarian, and fascist friendly, Friedrich Hayek.

The only problem is that none of the cures advocated by the supply-side economists, as they came to be known when Arthur Laffer rose to prominence, worked. Tax cuts for upper income brackets did not increase employment. Cuts in government spending on benefits to lower income taxpayers were eaten up by increases in military spending and bigger subsidies for corporations. Government deficits rose.

Today, the United States under Donald Trump is running an annual deficit of close to one trillion dollars. If applied to Canada on the usual ratio of one-to-ten for population difference, this would mean a $100 billion deficit. In fact, Canada’s budget for 2019 laid out a deficit of just over $19 billion, making Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a Scrooge by comparison.

The result of the ‘economists’ hour,’ Appelbaum argues, is that “America has pursued economic growth without sufficient regard to the strength of the safety net,” leading to an imbalance “that has proven destructive.” It’s the reason, he concludes, that “the very survival of liberal democracy is now being tested by nationalist demagogues as it was in the 1930s.”

(My thanks to Little, Brown for an advance reading copy).

How the boy on the beach turned a nation’s heart

THE BOY ON THE BEACH – Tima Kurdi, Simon & Schuster, Toronto

When Tima Kurdi gave up hope that her Syrian brother, his wife and two children would ever be allowed to come to Canada as refugees, she sent him five thousand dollars to pay smugglers to take them to Greece

Tima, who grew up as the eldest daughter of a Kurdish family in Damascus – “Jasmine City” – had come to Canada in 1992, married to a man approved of by her parents. Now it was summer, 2015, and the Harper government was dragging its heels on refugee acceptance despite the worsening of the war in Syria.

Throughout the long month of August Tima waited for word that Abdullah and his family had made it across the few kilometres of the Aegean Sea that separated Turkey from the Greek island of Kos. From there, hopefully, they could move north to a European country where they might begin new lives.


Abdullah could see the island from where he stood. “I can see it from here. It’s right there. So close and yet so far.” Day after day, he waited, with his wife Rehanna and sons Ghalib, four, and Alan, two, for storm-tossed seas to subside. Twice they set out, only to have their boats flounder. Turkish Coast guard cutters brought them back to shore. The third boat they took overturned and sank in high waves.

On the morning of September 2, Tima saw on her cell phone an image of a small boy, drowned on a Turkish beach. It was Alan. His brother and mother had also drowned. Only Abdullah had survived.

The Boy on the Beach is the story of how this came about, the price that the people of Syria have paid for the uprising that began in April 2011, and what has happened to Tima’s family since that awful day when TV stations and newspapers around the world carried that dramatic picture.

This is a book filled with sincerity and love, but also with frustration and bitter tears of failure. It speaks to the love and intimacy of Tima Kurdi’s family, of her growing up with a longing to be an independent woman of the world.

Tima’s account of her efforts to secure the entry to Canada of Abdullah and his family, and also her brother Mohammad and his wife and children, makes for difficult reading. Tima’s MP carried a letter to the Minister of Citizenship, Chris Alexander, pleading for approval. Nothing happened.

By now, in 2015, Abdullah had been captured and tortured by an ISIS gang in Syria . He had found refuge in Turkey with his family, as had Mohammad and his. That summer, Mohammad joined the exodus to Germany, one of a million refugees who walked most of the way from Greece. After the death of Abdullah’s wife and children, the Canadian government relented, flew Mohammed’s family to him in Germany, and allowed them to come to Canada as refugees under Tima’s sponsorship.

The death of Alan Kurdi became an issue in the October, 2015 Canadian federal election. Why had the government been so slow to react to the crisis? Tima Kurdi writes with remarkable restraint of her experiences with the refugee system, and tries to avoid placing political blame. Canadians were not so charitable toward the Harper government, turning it out in favour of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals who promised to allow 25,000 refugees into Canada by year’s end. They missed that target by but a few weeks.

(Like other Canadians, I was shocked by the picture of Alan Kurdi on the beach in Turkey. We organized a committee of writers in Kingston, Ontario to sponsor a refugee family. Syrian writer Jamal Saeed , his wife and two sons recently celebrated their first year here.)

The Boy on the Beach stands as a personal testament to the disaster that has overtaken Syria, and how the world has reacted to the upheaval of seven million people. The book concludes with Tima’s reunion with Abdullah in Iraq, where he has settled in Erbil, capital of the Kurdish autonomous region. Together, they have launched the Kurdi Foundation to assist children living in refugee camps.

Tima Kurdi is unsure whether writing this book has helped her find answers to questions that have haunted her since Alan’s death. She hopes it will help people understand that “we are all essentially the same; we all dream of healthy, peaceful, safe lives … We are more similar than different, and we are stronger when united.” Tima will speak at the Kingston Writersfest in September, 2018.

(My thanks to Simon and Schuster for an advance reading of this book, which will be published April 27.)

Why not 100 million Canadians?

A small eastern Ontario town of overwhelmingly white voters of a Conservative bent is hardly the place one might look for an endorsement of multiculturalism in Canada.

The welcome Perth has given to four Syrian refugee families – and the fact sponsors were able to find two Arabic speakers among the town’s healthcare professionals – demonstrates that it is the public, not politicians, who are making multiculturalism work.

This is important, because as Doug Saunders observes in his challenging book, Maximum Canada, “Canadians, almost uniquely in the Western world, remain supportive of immigration and its resulting proliferation of skin colours, linguistic backgrounds and religion.”


Saunders, who is chief international correspondent of the Globe and Mail, makes the case in this book for a Canada of 100 million people by 2100. It seems an ambitious goal, considering that the 2016 census counted only 35.2 million Canadians. Yet, given the maintenance of even present levels of immigration and our current birth rate, we will come close to ninety million by the end of the present century.

Why not step that up a notch, as recommended by the Advisory Council on Economic Growth, and bring in 450,000 newcomers a year, making sure we’ll attain the hundred million mark? (Our current target is 330,000 in 2019 and 350,000 in 2020.) If we do reach the 100 million mark by 2100, we’ll still be 180 years behind the United States; they did it in 1920.

There’s much to the Canadian population story, and Saunders delves into the political and economic circumstances that have caused Canada to lag in growth.

It began with a desire to keep Canada British (except for the French already in Quebec) with an economy restricted to farming and pulling natural resources out of the ground,

Canadian towns in the 19th century struggled as self-sufficient communities, each with their own gristmill, brickyard, and furniture maker, but no industries of a scale capable of export. The leading Canadian thinker of the late 1800s, Goldwin Smith, argued that “the great industry of Ontario is farming,” and thought it should stay that way. Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Policy of high tariffs protected what industry Canada did have. It also turned Canada into a branch plant economy, with consumers paying higher prices for everything from clothing to cars.

Ironically, Saunders observes, what population Canada did gain came not primarily from Britain, but from the United States. The trickle that began with the United Empire Loyalists grew to a small deluge of American farmers moving into the Canadian prairies to take up the last available homesteads in North America.

It was not until Wilfrid Laurier’s turn at power, from 1896 to 1911, that a serious effort was made to expand Canada and take advantage of the larger U.S. market. Saunders writes of this time:

That decade and a half, viewed from the distance of a century, is the most productive and expansive time Canada has ever experienced – a decisive break with the minimizing impulse and the advent of an entirely new approach to building the country.

Even so, the Laurier era ended with voters’ rejection of reciprocity with the U.S. that would have brought free trade in farm produce and resources. Most of another century would pass before the U.S.-Canada free trade agreement of 1988, followed by the NAFTA pact that is now under threat from Donald Trump.

For decades Canadian immigration policy was mired in racism. “None is too many,” a Canadian government official said famously in the 1930s, while rejecting the admission of Jewish refugees, many of whom would later die in Nazi concentration camps.

Earlier, this had been exemplified in the turning away of the Indian vessel Komagata Maru that attempted to bring Hindu workers into British Columbia, and in the head tax imposed on Chinese immigrants.

Not until after the Second World War did Canada replace quotas with a merit system, and also began to admit large numbers of refugees, first from Hungary and later Vietnam and currently Syria.

As Saunders’ book makes clear, for most of our history we’ve had too few people to produce the scientists, artists, writers and business achievers in the numbers needed to make Canada thrive. Our market’s been too small, and our pool of investment too shallow.

“Imagine a larger Canada,” Saunders asks in Maximum Canada “The places that feel crowded and jam packed today would feel less claustrophobic and more spacious in a maximum Canada, because they would gain the transportation networks and public spaces only a larger population can support.”

To achieve that goal, Canadians will have to rework everything from housing policies (more high density construction, preferably low rise, in inner cities) to meaningful reconciliation with Indigenous nations. Doug Saunders’ vision of a Canada expanded by three times its present size may seem an audacious goal, but there is nothing to stop us from reaching it.